Advent resources

Film in review – “What If”

what_if_movie_posterEven we married folks have friends of the opposite gender. And occasionally it will occur to us that we seem to have much in common with said friend, though there’s always this clanging warning bell going off inside our heads; much like when big construction equipment goes in reverse: you can’t help but hear the loud beeping. There’s danger here, especially combined with a lack of due vigilance. And it’s not really fair to compare a friendship with a live-in relationship, anyway, because the dynamics of intimacy are so different. But occasionally even otherwise intelligent people will play with fire and blithely assume that no one will get burned.

Chantry (Zoe Kazan) meets Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and they seem to have an instant chemistry, except she quickly informs him that she lives with her boyfriend. Wallace, still recovering from walking in on his ex-girlfriend “in flagrante delicto,” decides he doesn’t need to be strung along any more than he already has. But he also realizes that he’s become terribly isolated, living in his sister’s attic apartment and helping her be a single mom by baby-sitting her kid… except Wallace unhappily realizes that that doesn’t really meet his emotional needs, either. Nor does his dead-end job writing manuals in a cubicle, after dropping out of medical school after his instant heartache (she was an intern). But when Wallace and Chantry happen upon each other by chance once again, and “feel the connection” just like they did before, they can’t help themselves. They keep talking and naturally decide to spend more time together.

The viewer, of course, remains as conflicted as the characters. We like Chantry because she’s sweet and creative: an animator by profession. Sometimes cartoon-like caricatures will float across the screen, as if we’re privy to her imagination. Though she’s girl-next-door cute, she doesn’t seem to be too full of herself or prima-donna-like, just a happy, unpretentious person who’s pleasant to be around. And Wallace finds himself enchanted while trying to hide his true feelings, fearing that she’ll be angry with him for reneging on their platonic arrangement. And just to be clear, when he does meet the boyfriend, an über-successful international attorney, he’s solemnly agreeing to “just” be a friend, though the rest of the evening ends in disaster and we wind up not being so sure about the winsomeness of Chantal’s boyfriend, either.

Meanwhile, it seems that Chantry is so categorically in denial about her own feelings for Wallace that we wonder what sort of random spark is going to ignite their passion. Their so-called couple friends actually try to set this up for them, but that doesn’t go as planned, either. When Chantry’s boyfriend suddenly decides to accept an overseas assignment, after Chantry herself has specifically turned down just such a promotion for his sake, fate finally meets opportunity. It’s not without consequences, either, because now the agreed-upon ground rules are suddenly no longer valid.

Those viewers who are fans of the “Harry Potter” series will no doubt have difficulty seeing Daniel Radcliffe and changing their perception of him, even as Radcliffe’s character in this movie has difficulty changing his perception of Chantry, as she has difficulty changing her perception of him.

“What If” is one of those romantic comedies that’s not heavy on the explicit romance or the slapstick comedy. But it tracks complex relationships that feel real, with characters that are easy to empathize with, and does so in a lighthearted, whimsical way that draws in the viewer, despite dealing with all the ambiguities. Or maybe even because of it.


Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.